Belfast Telegraph

Robinson steps beyond shadows of two big men

By stressing Edward Carson's willingness to compromise in his Dublin speech, the First Minister was justifying his own political journey, says Clifford Smyth

The speech by First Minister Peter Robinson in Dublin last night represented an important milestone in the development of the DUP's ideological construct.

You have only to reach into the archive box for a copy of Sam (sic) Wilson's Carson Trail to note the seismic shift that has taken place over 30 years.

Yet, two key elements in this address point up why the DUP has become the dominant political party - not only within unionism, but within the politics of Northern Ireland.

One of the most important aspects of Ian Paisley's politics was his pragmatism; while proclaiming to his followers that he was a man of principle, one of the factors which accounted for the 'Big Man's' rise to power was his ability to shift position in order to benefit from the discomfiture of rival unionist factions, or to seize upon some turn of events.

The pragmatic nature of Paisleyism transferred seamlessly to the DUP and twice in Peter Robinson's lecture - Reflections on Irish Unionism - he made reference to the need for flexibility in politics.

Robinson asserted that Sir Edward Carson "was a man who was prepared to compromise and alter direction when the situation demanded it". Later in his speech, Robinson underlined the virtue of those "who can adapt to changing circumstances".

The possibility that the First Minister was recruiting the founding father of unionism to justify his own political actions must have been a thought that occurred to many in the audience.

A more decisive element in Ian Paisley's route to power was the espousal of what Paisley termed "traditional unionism".

The importance of this assertion cannot be over emphasised, because it enabled the Paisleyites - as they were termed at the time - to mobilise a growing following among the rural Protestant population in Northern Ireland and, to a more limited extent, among the loyalist working-class in Belfast, too.

The theme that the DUP holds to traditional unionist values emerged as a feature of Peter Robinson's Dublin address.

It is an article of faith with the DUP that theirs is the party which upholds traditional unionist values, distinguishing the DUP from the Ulster Unionist Party, which sold out to the forces of nationalism and Irish republicanism.

It's important to acknowledge the sleight-of-hand that is entailed in this rewriting of history - if only because the effrontery of the First Minister's claim illustrates the naked weakness of the UUP; Peter could get away with it - and he did. There is also a very real sense that, in this speech, Robinson has stepped well beyond the long shadow cast by the former DUP leader.

This is a speech delivered in a very different political environment and, while the aims of the address were to reflect on the life and times of Sir Edward Carson from the vantage point of the post-modern era, due regard was paid to the new atmosphere that prevails across the island. This was a speech that reflected the new agenda; neighbourliness, not confrontation.

Specific issues raised in the Ulster Covenant of 1912 carry with them an almost prophetic warning.

The alarm at the threat to Ulster's economic well-being echoes down the years and, interestingly, Peter Robinson did allude to economic matters, but this was by way of a passing reference.

However, there was no attempt to meddle with the fraught issue of the scandal of Roman Catholic clerical abuse. That traditional unionist cry of old - 'Home Rule is Rome Rule' - remained mute. The DUP is the most 'Irish' of all the unionist parties and groupings, but on this occasion the First Minister laid all the stress on the DUP's pro-British identity, which Robinson set firmly within a Northern Ireland context, making clear the distinction between the 'Irish Unionism' of Sir Edward and the current political circumstances.

The DUP's enthusiasm for Sir Edward is paradoxical; you might have thought that, of the two great architects of unionism, the DUP's preference would have been for the more parochial figure of Sir James Craig.

Ian Paisley's willingness to identify with another charismatic orator and 'Big Man' is perhaps understandable, but in his Dublin lecture last night Peter Robinson demonstrated his own claim to the legacy of Carson, while proving to his rivals in the crumbling Ulster Unionist Party that the leader of the DUP can articulate a commanding vision of unionism.

The difficulty for the rest of us presents itself in the unspoken contrast between the reality and the dream.

Where is the critique of the levels of corruption we now encounter, or the jobs for the boys (and girls) who are willing to embrace the new community politics in Ulster, while others are pushed to the margins, or frozen out? Can the Assembly at Stormont provide a democratic forum without having a credible Opposition?

In 1912, the Ulster Covenant raised a banner to 'equal citizenship'.

You'll excuse me for thinking that there is still some way to go.

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